Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Better never than late...

Or is it the other way around? Anyway, here's the late blog for the week. Sorry about that -- life just got the best of me.

Rather than describing a recipe this week, I thought I'd talk a little about cooking game meat. I realized that I've talked about recipes for cooking rabbit, venison (deer, for those who may not know), and duck. I haven't talked very much about the strategies used when cooking game meat.

Game meat isn't hard to cook at all. On the contrary, it can be very easy to cook, provided you've gotten it properly field-dressed (entrails removed cleanly with no spillage). But you can't cook it quite like you would that slab of beef you bought at the grocers last night.

Game meats differ from domestic meats in two ways:
  1. Game meat is made of muscle that has done a lot of work.

  2. Game meat has less fat.

These two facts add up to game meat being a little tougher than store-bought meat. Game animals forage for their food, which means they don't get food as regularly or as abundantly as farm animals. They have to range around to find food and security. All of this work builds muscle fibers and, with the lower food volume, encourages leanness. As a result, the muscle fibers are stronger and denser.

Most game animals are older than domestic animals when they are harvested. Again, the muscles have done a lot more work and do not have the fat deposits that younger animals' muscles have. This leads to meat that is a little drier/less moist than store-bought meats (which can also be injected with sugar-water or salt-water).

The toughness and dryness of the meat respond very well in a low-temperature, moist, slow-cooked dish. I am partial to braising, stewing, or crock-potting (if you forgive the coining of the term) game meats. Game meat can be roasted, but a fat-based moist method (such as larding) must be used. If you are careful, you can succeed in grilling or pan-frying some cuts, but in general, stick with the moist methods.

However, for some game animals and for some cuts, moist cooking isn't quite enough to bring out all of the wonderful flavor of the meat or to render it fork-tender. In these cases, you will need a little acidity to help break down the meat. I'm partial to using tomatoes and/or wine.

Tomatoes provide a wonderful brightness to game dishes, especially rabbit or venison. Tomato's natural juices reduce the amount of water you need to add, helping to concentrate the flavors of the meat, vegetables, and the broth. I prefer to use canned tomatoes (not tomato sauce) and some tomato paste. Tomato-based sauces are also a little more forgiving of sloppy field-dressing of the meat, provided you carefully clean the meat before freezing, canning, or cooking (when the meat is fresh).

Wine is just as wonderful with game meats, providing an increased savoriness to the dish. Wine also brings out a complexity of flavor that tomatoes just can't match. There is a reason coq-au-vin calls for old chickens. The meat has a wonderfully rich flavor, but needs the wine to break down the fibers and release all that wonderful built-up flavor.

Vinegars and fruit juices can provide the acid base for game meats, but must be carefully considered. For instance, rabbit works well with apple juice, but orange juice or red grape juice will overwhelm it. Venison will work very well with balsamic vinegar or cider vinegar, but will overwhelm rice vinegar and white wine vinegar.

So, to sum up, game meats tend to be tougher and drier than store-bought meat. Moist methods tenderize the meat and make it more moist. Acids, such as wine or tomatoes, help bring out every bit of flavor the meat has to offer -- which is a lot.

See, I told you cooking game meat was easy!

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